In making any assessment on the merits of the Lisbon treaty we are encumbered rather than assisted by both the process leading up to the treaty signing and the process of the ratifying referendum itself. A referendum on an EU treaty marks the end of a long torturous process of trade-offs, horse trading, nuanced discussion, and negotiation. In suggesting as some have that we could renegotiate with Europe about aspects of the treaty we need to remember that it is a rather dull and messy compromise made by 27 elected governments.
Seeking to renegotiate aspects on which there is no settled national consensus goes beyond being merely complicated. The Socialist Party and Cóir, both of whom, like many others, seek to speak for those who voted No last time, would have an unbridgeable distance between them on say the issue of abortion, which isn’t even addressed in the treaty but which one of them believes is. For such groups the issues they and their forbearers raised first in the 70s have and will never go away you know. The arguments about a threat to Irish jobs was made by many on the left in the 1970s, others focused on neutrality or military non-engagement, an EU army, conscription, or abortion. All are issues that have been around since our accession debate. Despite repeating these claims in subsequent treaties, the day that our gay sons have been forced into EU armies for abortions while compelled to eat straight bananas has not come to pass.
The difficulty in addressing these concerns once they became the main focus of debate is that opposition groups, whether Sinn Fein, the Socialist Party and even Fine Gael and Labour amongst others, lost the battle to be directly involved in the detailed discussion about the treaty preparation when the general election of 2002 took place. Our democratic system requires that you win the elections leading up to the negotiations in order to for your people to be involved in the discussion. Part of the reason for this is that inherent to our system of representative democracy is the notion of putting your job on the line if you are wrong on the position you advocate.
Post the Nice Treaty debacle one of the core lessons the government should have learned was to never again come home from the EU fair with another Jack’s magic beans of a treaty. To facilitate this we need to look for a new more continuous form of public discourse and engagement that means fewer people are caught unawares of the process leading up to such treaties. And when it comes to the very detailed nuanced legal matters that form the basis of a treaty agreed by 27 participants we need to elect people to do a job of negotiating on our behalf and to trust them to do it. We pick those people via the electoral process and we should take considerably more care about it. That they turn out to be undeserving of our trust but are then re-elected is not their failing but ours.
It should be now evident that Ireland, and Europe more generally, is suffering from consultation fatigue. There is a strong argument to be made that the EU should have a moratorium on any more institutional changes for a decade or more. In his contribution to the Orange book, Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats spoke of the need for the EU to enjoy a period of stability with an absence of significant institutional change. A reformed system of public engagement prior to treaty agreements which in turns obviates the requirement for detailed debate after agreement has being reached and a period of stability in the EU institutions, for at least a decade or more, should be considered as priority lessons from the Lisbon process.
NB – there is a certain irony that the Zemanta thingy threw up an image of the signing of the Nice treaty one of its top options. So I stuck with it.